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May 17

Nursing: it’s a small world!

My son Eric (middle) with Team Canada pals

You often hear “it’s a small world”, and it sure is getting smaller every day. By the same token, nursing is a small community, it really is. We may not have a “secret handshake”, but we are well served by remembering that we are connected to a community that has deep roots and long branches. I could talk a lot about how much more effective we are in policy circles when we act as a community (and I will another day), but I’d rather tell you a funny story. This is a simple story about the power of connection, nurse to nurse.

In the summer of 2008, my husband and I traveled to the Czech Republic to watch our oldest son play baseball with the Canadian National University baseball team (it was such fun!). On the plane over, I felt a tickle in my throat, and had a bit of a cough. No big deal. Over the course of the next few days, that tickle turned into the worst respiratory infection I have ever had! We were in the city of Brno—the second largest city in the Czech Republic, with a population of about 375,000. A beautiful and historic city, with very friendly people (almost none of whom we encountered spoke any English whatsoever). Long story short: imagine me, sitting bolt upright in bed all night in our hotel because I was having difficulty breathing, with a fever, wheezing stridor and a voice so croaky I sounded like I was possessed! I needed help. First thing in the morning, the hotel staff pointed us at the nearest hospital. Now, Brno has many state of the art medical facilities. This did not appear to be one of them.

We walked in the front of the beautiful (and ancient) structure—into a lobby the size of a gymnasium. There was one woman typing on a keyboard away across the space (might have been a typewriter the way the noise echoed through the cavernous room). She took one look at us, shook her head as if to say “no”, and pointed us down a long, vaulted hallway that had a new floor of linoleum installed sometime around 1950 (judging by the checkerboard pattern). There was an arrow pointing up a long staircase at the end of the hall, so we ascended the solid, wide and creaky stairs up to a second floor where we heard distant voices at the end. Bill began searching for his Czech phrase book as we approached a large room, with a glassed-in desk area at the front. The patients waiting there were in gowns, and all had some sort of orthopedic accessory…walkers, canes, casts…clearly one of these things “was not like the others”! I couldn’t speak, and Bill was frantically trying to explain how ill I was to the grim faced (I think unit clerk?) at the desk. There was a lot of head shaking “no”, and arm gestures indicating that we were in the WRONG place. As I stood there silently, too sick to much care what was going on, I noticed a business card taped to the inside of the glass wall. It had a name on it, with a title underneath it “registrovaná zdravotní sestra”. At that moment, a woman appeared from the back of the desk area, in a white uniform, wearing a name tag that matched the name on this business card. My feverish brain took a few moments to put it together, and then I began fishing for my business card in my purse. I waved this impressive woman over to me, and pointed at the name tag, then at her (with an appropriately curious, if slightly desperate look on my face). She nodded, pulled herself up to her full height, and said what I am sure was one of the only English phrases she new “I am the RN!”  emphasizing the “R.N” with such obvious pride. I slid my card across the desk, and pointed out the “RN” designation, and croaked “me too” as I pointed to my chest.

Well, that was it. I had gone from being an unwelcome foreign interloper to a visiting Canadian colleague in about 2 seconds. The look on my husband’s face said “HUH??” She escorted me personally into a clinic room, dragged in the confused physician (who I was to discover was an orthopedic surgeon that spoke perfect English), and proceeded to explain to him, in Czech, that he would see me next. So, he did. The equipment was ancient (metal, non-disposable), the room was old, but the medical (and nursing) care was just what I needed. He wrote out the scripts for all the drugs I would need, and handed them to my new R.N. colleague. She then escorted me down to the pharmacy in the basement, where she explained to the pharmacist what I would need. She waited, then walked with us to the door of the hospital, and shook my hand as we departed. We couldn’t share many words, but the handshake and the look of mutual respect said it all.

 I will never forget my Czech colleague, and I still marvel at the power of community that is nursing.  And one more lesson: your business card—don’t leave home without it!

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